Our View: Voters have spoken: County education office must get busy

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Pam Robie Hart’s election to the Placer County Office of Education board comes with a message from voters. Taxpayers rightfully want the county office to research whether consolidating foothill school districts by community would save money and offer students a better education. So it’s now time to get busy. A major difference between Hart and 12-year incumbent Don Brophy was their opinions on the county office’s role in initiating a consolidation study. Hart is co-founder of a citizens’ group, Community Unification for Better Education, which has been studying school district unification for six years. The group was formed to promote the idea of consolidating Placer County’s numerous tiny districts into fewer high-functioning community-centered K-12 school districts. CUBE proposes consolidating schools in Auburn, Colfax, Foresthill and Loomis by community. Hart, a business analyst for Hewlett-Packard, also promised to seek more public involvement in county Board of Education decision making. More public participation is sorely needed. But first, taxpayers need to know the facts. Bart O’Brien, Placer High School District superintendent, recently wrote a guest column in the Auburn Journal suggesting unification might well save millions in taxpayer dollars and improve education. He said it was definitely worth studying, especially given the declining enrollment in some local districts and the state’s financial woes. O’Brien said the County Office of Education conducted a study several years ago on the impact of revenue limits, school districts’ primary source of funding. He said at a meeting of area superintendents, all were intrigued by the possible savings. “We were all surprised to learn that a complete K-12 unification would net an increase of state money of $6.9 million,” O’Brien said. But it isn’t quite that simple, as O’Brien also noted. Different districts have varying levels of debt. And some districts have better facilities than others, as well as contract obligations and legal liabilities. No matter what information comes out, school district consolidation is worth studying. And, the voters have said by electing Hart that they think the county office should be acting. Any decisions must be based on what’s best for students. And especially in this financial climate, potential cost savings must also be heavily weighed. It is understandable that today’s tiny one-school and elementary school districts want to maintain local control. But local control might even be improved with restructuring by community. Instead of five-member boards, perhaps seven could serve. And the transition and consistency in education might also be improved. With improved organization, higher quality teachers and administrators could be attracted to teach here and stay here. The Placer County Office of Education is responsible for overseeing that area school districts are run in a fiscally sound manner. Rather than trod ahead with what’s been done before and what’s comfortable, the office should heed the leadership role to which it has been entrusted. Others on the county board must now join Hart and direct Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, county superintendent, to utilize her own staff or hire an outside firm to study this issue and report back to taxpayers.